AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Nulle terre sans seigneur [No land without a lord]--feudal law maxim
Lear is at once the most extroverted and introverted of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. The divergence between his mental trauma and childlike or childish innocence makes the role supremely difficult to play, as Peter Brook told his actors:
Brook spoke of the play as a mountain whose summit had never been reached. On the way up one found the shattered bodies of other climbers strewn on every side. "Olivier here, Laughton there; it's frightening." (Marowitz 135)
This summit has yet to be conquered partly because our knowledge of what is inadequately termed madness has grown as fitfully as our willingness to confront it. As to legal issues, Lear's abdication of political and juridical responsibility leads indirectly to a test of his sanity that solicits our redemptive sensibilities.
I begin by treating legal interpretations of madness in the context of the Jacobean era, revealing similarities between Shakespeare's age and our own. In Part II, I compare King James's superstitious and moralistic critique of madness with that of Dr. Edward Jorden, who publicly opposed his monarch's opinions. Part III focuses on the play's complex representation of Lear's mental state, which affects many layers of the social fabric. Lear has the disadvantages of mens rea responsibility without having truly performed the actus reus. When Lear kills, his act is unquestionably defensible. Part IV treats legal issues concerning ownership of the realm and the crown.
I. MADNESS AND RENAISSANCE LAW
English law has changed throughout time as to the degree of madness required to excuse wrongdoing, but since the Middle Ages it has not punished the insane. Only an assault on the king's life rendered a defendant absolutely liable for the deed. I do not mean to suggest that mental illness was humanely addressed in the Jacobean era or that the law took steps to treat it in a positive light. Indeed, within the legal profession at this time, madness was seen to be its own punishment. But while Coke held that an insane defendant is disqualified from having the requisite mens rea to be convicted of a crime, the neoclassical age, for example, adopted such an unreasonably harsh attitude toward the disease that defending individuals deemed insane became extraordinarily difficult. Three insanity cases relating to the performance of King Lear on the Jacobean stage show madness to have been as vexing a legal issue then as it is today.
One of the earliest judgments in an insanity case surfaced in 1278 during the reign of Edward I. The king interceded on behalf of a murderer, Hugh de Misyn of Leyton, who evidently experienced intermittent bouts of insanity. Hugh was found to have "hanged his daughter whilst suffering from madness, and not by felony or of malice afore-thought" (Close Rolls 1: 518). The court had still to determine if Hugh constituted a risk to others before concluding their investigation, but Edward's intervention demonstrates the medieval English common law position that madness negates malice aforethought, the mental element of the illegal act necessary for a murder conviction.
Hugh's case also reveals the historical function of the king to care for his mentally ill subjects. This requirement is part of what Lear comes to understand as his failure to provide alms for the infirm souls populating his realm. When Edgar adopts the disguise of Tom O' Bedlam, he plays a role that inherently ought to persuade the king to rule rightly by traditional standards. Lear awakens to his duties in a central scene involving the mock arraignment of his daughters, but Edgar strikes a sympathetic chord in the protagonist and his audience concerning the evils of poverty and mental distress. Coke explains the king's quasi-legal responsibility:
And that the King shall have the protection of the goods and chattels of an idiot, as well as of his lands appears ... where he says, that if an idiot who cannot defend or govern himself, nor order his lands, tenements, goods, and chattels, the King of right ought to have him in his custody, and to protect him and his lands, goods, and chattels. (Coke's Reports 2: 576)
On this point, Coke follows the mid-thirteenth century Praerogativa regis, which was of uncertain legality but which helped to maintain the property rights of the insane during their periods of illness. (1) Thus, the appetite for lex talionis revenge against mentally unstable offenders was absent even as early as the reign of Edward I. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were to be far less understanding regarding this human rights issue. (2)
Rather than oversimplifying madness by making Tom little more than a useless eater, Shakespeare notes the character's loyalty and resourcefulness in the context of Lear's ever-diminishing retinue. Whether Lear's hundred are a chivalrous or roguish lot is difficult to ascertain, though the king seems predisposed to choose men resembling Kent in his coltish moods. Traditionally, the king had a national security right to retain a following: "Knights service in capite were for the honor and defense of the Realm; and concerning those that served the King his household, their continual service and attendance upon the Royall person of the King was necessary" (2 Institutes 631). Interpretative decisions regarding the behavior of Lear's followers are left to theatre practitioners. Peter Brook's 1962 production characterized them as layabouts capable of erupting into violence at the slightest provocation. The ruling classes in Shakespeare's London had ongoing concerns regarding laws to control sturdy beggars given well-documented prentice riots. In this vein, Robert Burton describes London's decline by 1621:
Wee have many swarmes of rogues and beggers, theeves, drunkards, and discontented persons (whom Lycurgus in Plutarch cals morbos reipub, the boiles of the common-wealth) many poore people in all oure Townes, Civitates ignobiles, as Polydore cals them. (Anatomy 1: 76)
The knights whose removal so enrages Lear as a sign of his lost power and prestige are to be distinguished from the portrayal of the insane, whose uncomfortable presence was seen to flatter no one.
Coke's 1603 brief in Beverley's Case constitutes in miniature an agenda for …